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Pogačar Odds-On Favorite to Win Tour de France and Score Rare Grand Tour Double

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Rarely has a Tour de France been so eagerly anticipated as this year’s edition, and rarely has a Tour been so badly hit by misfortune in the runup. The crashes and illnesses that have affected three of the four main protagonists of the race have been lavishly documented and bemoaned. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, a horse player’s mantra following a losing bet, can also be applied to this Tour. It coulda been spectacular; it shoulda been a sporting event of the highest magnitude; it woulda been a race for the ages if not for the crashes and…

It still can be a great race. But given everything that has happened in the preceding two months, we should lower our expectations a bit and, in this way, allow surprises to double our pleasure if the Tour approaches our dream of it. There are still four favorites, but no one appears to have a chance against the best of them. I will discuss them each in the order of their likely finish, beginning with the rider who has emerged out of the pre-Tour chaos as the odds-on favorite to win his third Tour de France.

I’m talking, of course, about Tadej Pogačar, the only man of the four to have passed through the spring unscathed. That alone should be enough for him to win the Tour, in contrast to last year, when a crash at the Liège–Bastogne–Liège disrupted his preparations and cost him precious training time.

This year is preparations for the race have been ideal, and even his participation at the Giro d’Italia, which he won by nearly 10 minutes, shouldn’t count against him. Only seven riders have managed the Tour-Giro double, with Eddy Merckx doing it three times and Fausto Coppi, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain twice. So it’s doable for an extraordinary rider, which the UAE Team Emirates leader certainly is. And the ease with which he won the Giro suggests that he didn’t leave everything on its roads.

“It’s looked like I’ve made a step forward since the Giro, and my shape is even better than what I expected,” Pogačar was quoted as saying on the team’s website. “I’ve done some good training, and I’ve tested my legs a little bit and, to be honest, I have never felt so good on the bike.”

Those words should strike fear into the hearts of all of his rivals. Add to that the best support team in the race, headed by Adam Yates and João Almeida, who finished one-two in the recent Tour de Suisse, and including such powerhouse riders as Juan Ayuso, Pavel Sivakov and Marc Soler.

The one question still hanging over Pogačar’s head, in my mind, is his ability to climb the long, steep slopes of the Tour. His explosiveness on the ascents could mask a weakness on the most difficult mountains. But that’s why he has Yates, Almeida et al. I think, barring accident or illness, the 27-year-old Slovenian should have the raced sewn up, at the latest, after the stage 14 summit finish at St-Lary-Soulan (10.6km @ 7.9%), a stage that also includes the indomitable Col du Tourmalet (19km @ 7,4%). He probably won’t win the yellow jersey by 10 minutes, as in the Giro, but he should dominate this Grand Tour as well.

For Primož Roglič, this could be his last chance to attain his Tour de France yellow jersey dream. At 34, he is already close to being too old for a Tour win. The oldest rider to win the race was Firmin Lambot, in 1922, at 36 years and 130 days. In the modern age, Cadel Evans was the oldest, at 34 years and 160 days old when he won in 2011. So it’s possible, but not likely.

Roglič’s most impressive quality is his stubbornness and drive to win. He left Visma–Lease a Bike and joined BORA-hansgrohe this year because he was promised full dedication to his Tour drive by his new team. So far, that partnership has had mixed results. He disappointed at Paris-Nice, crashed out – with Vingegaard and Remco Evenepoel – at the Itzulia Basque Country and won, without dominating, the important Critérium du Dauphiné.

Still, until the final stage of the Dauphiné, where he weakened notably, Roglič looked very strong in the mountains, winning two summit finishes. He has no doubt used the three weeks since the end of that race to put more stamina into his legs and lungs. So I think Roglič will be Pogačar’s most serious rival, if only because of how much he wants a Tour victory.

His support team, headed by Aleksandr Vlasov and Jai Hindley, is top notch (though Pogačar has more top guns). The only factor that could prevent him from putting in an excellent performance is his propensity to take unnecessary risks and fall from his bike. Hopefully, he has finally learned his lesson.

If Jonas Vingegaard wins this Tour de France, I will eat my cat’s hat – and maybe even my cat. It’s already a big win that he has recovered from his injuries and made it to the Tour. But considering the training races and training camps he missed while recuperating, just completing this monster of a race would be an achievement for him.

Pogačar and Vingegaard
Vingegaard has recovered from his injuries and made it to the Tour. © Profimedia

Even his team staff say that there are doubts about his ability to win his third Tour de France in succession. “With the big injuries that he had, he hasn’t been able to train a lot on [the time-trial] bike,” Visma–Lease a Bike coach Mathieu Heijboer told Cycling Weekly. “So we will not be fully prepared. We did what we could, but for sure it’s not optimal.” This Tour’s final stage, which may decide the race, is a mountainous ITT from Monaco to Nice.

Add to this the fact that his best mountain support rider, Vuelta winner Sepp Kuss, is not riding in the Tour because of Covid, and you have a mountain of obstacles for the 27-year-old Dane to overcome. Kuss was replaced by 28-year-old Bart Lemmen, who has never ridden in a Tour de France. Even though Vingegaard will have the superb Wout van Aert, also returning from an injury, riding for him, this race is a bridge too far and comes a month too soon for him.

Favorite number four, Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick Step), has admitted that he doesn’t have a chance of winning this Tour. One reason is that a recent illness prevented him from doing the necessary training in the last weeks. “I couldn’t do high-intensity training, so I couldn’t do 100% of what I needed,” he told Sporza. “I certainly still have to grow during the first week [of the Tour].”

But the 24-year-old world ITT champion said that his targets in the Tour are a stage win and a top 5 GC finish. “It’s difficult to put expectations on it,” he said. “We can be ambitious, but it’s my first Tour.”

Evenepoel is coming off a disappointing performance in the Dauphiné, where he finished seventh and looked weak in the mountains. We now know that he suffered from allergies during the race and was still overweight. “My confidence is greater than before the Dauphiné,” he said. “I am in better shape and I am a little lighter.”

But I don’t think Soudal’s support team, led by Mikel Landa and Gianni Moscon, is as strong as those of their rivals. And, in any case, Evenepoel agrees with me about the winner. “I think Tadej Pogačar is eager for victory after two years without a final win.… He is the big favorite for me.”

In the very unlikely event that all four of these riders falter or fall, I think either Yates or Almeida could win the GC, that’s how strong UAE Team Emirates are this year. Another possibility is Visma’s exciting young American Matteo Jorgenson, who finished second to Roglič in the Dauphiné by a mere 8 seconds.

The 2004 Tour de France starts on Saturday in the Italian city of Florence with an opening stage that covers 206km and includes some 3,600 meters of climbing. The race ends on July 21, after covering 3,492km (or 2,170 miles), with that mountain ITT from Monaco to Nice.